It’s one of those little secrets. A majority of people either hate office holiday parties or simply don’t care about them. Yet year after year, people dress up for an evening of socializing with people with whom they have little in common except their workplace. Last year, an American Express survey showed that only about a third of company employees looked forward to these events and most people are neutral to negative about them. Research conducted by the British Greyhound Racing Board* this year found that 70 percent of British workers would just as soon avoid the whole thing.

It’s not that people don’t like to party. Most folks do. A party is a treat. A party is a time to relax and socialize and maybe dance the night away. A party is a bright spot that is fun to look forward to, fun to attend, fun to remember. So what’s the problem with office parties?

It’s that the office party is so often experienced as an artificial event. Although most workers like the idea of an evening out that is a gift from the company and most bosses like to show their appreciation for another year of good work, it may well be that the typical office party isn’t the best way to accomplish either goal.

The issues are many: Declining the invitation feels impossible because it makes you look like you don’t care to spend down time with your co-workers – which may be the truth but it’s a truth most people don’t like to advertise. People who customarily only talk about work don’t know what else to talk about. People who rarely cross paths with management find it awkward to make small talk with the boss. People who are shy by nature or who have other priorities are often terribly nervous or terribly resentful. When alcohol is served, someone, maybe more than one someones, ends up the office embarrassment by revealing too much about themselves, hitting on someone who doesn’t welcome the attention, or saying things that in the light of day they wish they hadn’t.

Then there is the matter of one’s date for the party: Many people feel they can’t win when it comes to bringing the significant other. Bring your “other” and he or she is likely to be bored to tears by the shop talk. Don’t bring the “other” and people wonder: Is your relationship in trouble? Is your “other” not supportive of your career? If there is any lack of trust between you, that same “other” who loathed the party last year won’t stay home for this one. Although the party is a bore, it’s better than wondering what you’re up to all night. And don’t even think of bringing someone to the office party as a “first date!” The pressure it puts on the relationship and the questions you’ll have to answer at work on Monday aren’t worth it.

What’s highest on the list of complaints about the annual office party? Many, many people would rather spend what limited down-time they have either getting ready for their own holiday or socializing with real friends and family. The weeks before the winter holidays are stressed enough without giving over a whole evening to something they don’t care much about and often don’t enjoy.

And yet. . . And yet . . . Try not holding the party at all. Inevitably there are people who feel somehow gypped. The office holiday party has become such a cultural icon in the U.S. that the lack of a party is seen as stinginess on the part of management or a signal that the company is in serious financial trouble. Raising the option of not having the party, however gingerly, may be seen by one’s co-workers as bad manners at best or as giving management a way out of something “owed.” Management doesn’t want to be seen as withholding. No one (from the CEO on down) wants to be the person who says only what a lot of other people are thinking (and not saying). “Office party? Oh no, not again!”

The current economic crisis may do for us what our collective ambivalence hasn’t – encourage a reconsideration of the annual forced festivity in the workplace. With the economy going downhill, holding a lavish party is too reminiscent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. As a result, between one fifth and one quarter of American companies aren’t holding parties at all this year.

Tips for Holding a Successful Office Party

Many of those that are maintaining the office party tradition are modifying the celebration by limiting the menu and alcohol, holding the party during the work day, and holding it on site rather than at a restaurant. Moderation has entered the conversation. Yes, let’s have some kind of get-together. No, let’s not spend time with coworkers at an elaborate after hours party that is fraught with the potential for some terrible career gaff.

If you’ve been assigned the job of figuring out how to have a company holiday gathering on a modest or no budget, consider some of these ideas.

  1. Be sensitive to issues of diversity. Much of America doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Holiday decorations can celebrate the various festivals of winter to reflect many cultures and religions. Consider having an office potluck lunch where people bring and share samples of foods from their own family and cultural traditions.
  2. Get a committee together to rethink “office traditions” that require people to spend money for gifts they probably don’t need or want. Activities like “Secret Santas” and “Yankee Swaps” may have been maintained only because no one dared to say no. If the idea is to have some group activity, consider games or joke gifts instead of more expensive alternatives.
  3. Poll your office. You may find that people would feel good about contributing to a local charity instead of holding even a modest party. Some offices are collecting canned goods for the local survival center or donating presents for needy children instead of exchanging gifts.
  4. If people do want a get-together, consider a continental breakfast, potluck lunch or low key eggnog and cookie break instead of a dinner.
  5. Find a way for everyone to celebrate work well done and to appreciate those who have made the workplace a positive place to be. This could be as simple as a group brainstorming of successes or the issuing of certificates of appreciation.
  6. Spare the significant others and hold the event during the workday (or right after work) and limit it to co-workers only.
  7. f company policy allows it, see if it is possible to offer the staff a few extra hours or an additional day off during the week before New Year’s Eve in lieu of a party. Even a little time off can reduce some of the holiday stress and do wonders for morale. As one of my friends put it, “An office party is something put up with by the many for a few to enjoy. But a day off is something everyone can love.”

Although spurred by economic necessity, reconsideration of the office party is a healthy exercise that is probably way overdue. If you are fortunate to work in a cozy office or on a close-knit team where people genuinely like to spend time together, the annual party can be an affirming holiday ritual. But if the holiday party at your workplace is another holiday stress, there is room this year to suggest alternatives without being seen as a modern-day Scrooge. There are a whole lot of people who will only be relieved.

*Just in case you’re wondering: The reason the British Greyhound Racing Board commissioned the poll is that they hope employers will swap a night at the dog races for the usual party.